Realist and Liberal Approaches in International Relations

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Compare and contrast the realist and liberal approaches to the pursuit of peace in international relations

It is much better perhaps to define first what international relations really mean. What liberalism and realism mean so that it will be easier for us to see how these two schools of thoughts differs with regard to the way they see the world and its corresponding political atmosphere both in the domestic arena and in the international stage as well.

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International relations, accordingly is a branch of Political Science whose main domain is to study the foreign affairs and global issues among states within the international system, including the roles of states, intergovernmental organizations (IGOs), non-governmental organizations (NGOs), and multi-national corporations (MNCs). It is both an academic and public policy field, and can be either positive or normative as it seeks to analyze as well as to formulate the foreign policy of particular states (wikepedia, 2007).

Basing on the definition that we have about the nature of international relations, we learned that international relations is not merely exclusive to government institutions and government sponsored organizations. It encompasses the whole segments of society. It plays also a major role in advancing the harmony and peaceful coexistence among nations in world politics thru the conduits of international relations. International Relations is a very broad concept, I would like to add here Ken Booth definition about the subject, he said and I quote, international relations is the study of how the system of states could be made to work more effectively to enhance the power of Law, peacefully manage interstate affairs, preserved order and minimized the prospect of war.

 The author goes farther than that; he stated that the word relations in international relations simply meant, to signify that the field encompasses more than just politics, but a current fashion is to name the subject area in some hybrid like manner, such as Comparative Government and Politics. The field is close tied, administratively, if not academically, to Political Science departments. The inclusion of Law and Economics is one of the things that should make International Relations a complete breakaway discipline from Political Science. Too many careers are at stake to accomplish the needed reform in the academe to say that International Relations is an independent field of study not dominated by political scientists. He even gave some basic and advanced areas that might be included as basic comparative government content areas. They are the following:

1.      Conceptualizations of concepts such as state, nation, regime, government; process/policy and policymaking issues

2.      Normative and empirical approaches to comparison and classification; why/ways to organize government

3.      Techniques of state building with legitimacy and stability; governance and accountability structures

4.      The role of supranational/national/regional/local levels of government and their ideological and electoral frameworks

5.      The role of the military and other coercive or justice-related institutions; interest groups, bureaucracy and law

6.      Trends and patterns in revolutions, coups, and wars; globalization and fragmentation patterns of change

7.      Types of economic systems, political cultures, power structures, regimes, and belief systems as sources of legitimacy (Ken Booth, 2007)

Let us go now to the different theories that encompass the subject of international relations. Actually there are many theories, and because there so many of them. It is not surprising why people sometimes are getting confused and will lead them to get bored whenever this subject will start to intrude into their respective lives. For real this is the usual fact, however, boring or not, confusing or not, it is hard to deny that these theories have really played a vital role with the way our world is changing nowadays. There influence is so great that it will lead sometimes to some sort of fanaticism towards its diehard members. Here are some of the theories that the subject of International Relations has:

1.   Realism/ neo realism

2.   Idealism/ liberalism and neo liberalism

3.   Marxism/ dependency theory

4.   Critical theory/ constructivism

5.   Functionalism/ neo functionalism

These are some of the theories that compose the subject of international relations; there are a lot of them, too many. However, let us focus ourselves to the two theories, which are the most commonly used and whose origin can be traced back to the time when the Greek civilization was on its heights.  These are the theories of Realism and Liberalism. Among the two, realism is for sure the older because many political scientists considered Thucidedys as the first historian to use this kind of observation. He was famous in his observation concerning the cause of the Peloponnesian War, which causes the defeat and downfall of the Athenian Empire by Sparta. Liberalism on the other side is somewhat new. It started to sprout in the middle of the 17th century in Europe.

So let us start now to define and afterwards record here the comparison and contrast of these two most famous theories.

Let us start with the theory of Realism. According to Alexander Wendt Realism is the pessimism of International Relations because it:

It believes that the world view it presents represents the REALITYof international politics dating back at least to the time of Thucydides (5th century BC).
In realism, the principle actors are STATES, personified unitary rational actors whose behavior is determined by the structure of international ANARCHY (no government on top of states enforcing any kind of code of conduct or rules, anarchy/no ruler).
Based on a very negative and unchanging conception of human nature (BAD HUMAN NATURE). Humans want to survive, will seek to accumulate wealth, force to enable them to survive.  Not a trace of good or altruism in people or states.
World politics is a SELF-HELP system, states have to do for themselves entirely in a harsh system state of nature (Hobbes: life “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short”).
Politics involves a struggle for POWER between states in the pursuit of their national interests.
Power is needed in order to ensure SURVIVAL and protection of sovereignty, freedom of action.
Diplomacy is one instrument for gaining a state’s objectives, but ultimately the key instrument is military force/WAR.
Key concept: BALANCE OF POWER.  Constantly calculating to balance.
Key concept: security dilemma.
As it pertains to international organizations, different realist thinkers might view these organizations slightly differently.
A basic view would be as follows:
There is no authority higher than the individual state (definition of anarchy).  States can come together through international organizations to cooperate on issues of common interest.  But, international organizations cannot serve as a world government, do not constrain states’ behavior.  States still responsible for self-help, maintaining power, protecting national interests.  International organizations are, on the whole, marginal players in world politics, subject to the whims of the states, and particularly the powerful states, which control them.  This is a somewhat more cynical approach to international organizations than we will see in other approaches to international relations.
Good illustration of a realist take on international organizations was the Bush administration’s handling of the war against Iraq and the use of the United Nations.
Feeling threatened (as the case was put forward) by Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction and the idea that those weapons might be passed to terrorists, Bush asserted an absolute right on the part of the United States to protect itself (self-help).
Bush was persuaded to take the issue to the United Nations in order to provide international cover/legitimacy for the operation.  For a realist, it’s okay to do this if 1) do not give up right to do on your own, and 2) might even help improve your power position and protection of national interests to have international organizational, world public opinion in support.  In the end, when the United Nations Security Council refused to endorse a second resolution on the use of force, Bush did not even try to get a vote, put together a coalition of the willing and went in to Iraq anyway.  Since launching the war, worked to keep the United Nations out to protect US freedom of action (now, perhaps would like more international role, can’t get it.).
Associated with terms like raison d’etat and realpolitik.
Moral considerations secondary to power, national interest.  NO ROOM FOR MORALITY. (Alexander Wendt, 2002)
In regard to liberalism, I would like to quote again Alexander Wendt when he said that Liberalism is the optimism of the International Relations theory, because, simply;

Liberal international relations theories are based on the idea that humans are PERFECTABLE.  In contrast to the greedy man of realism or even the survival man of realism, liberal theories tend to see man as learning, striving, and improving over time.
State of nature more benign, humans can COOPERATE to improve their lives (Locke).  While world may be anarchical, there are contacts across borders, something like the germ of an international society.
PEACE is seen as a preferred condition and therefore ways should be found to foster peace among states.  This allows man to focus on the substantive things that make up the good life: food, art, culture, literature, farming, families.  Everything but weapons and the fighting of war.
Liberal approaches often also see man as tied to fellow man by a COMMON HUMANITY.    Therefore, the limits imposed by state boundaries are artificial.  This leads to ideas such as the pursuit of human rights violators across state boundaries, seeking to engage in development assistance.
Early varieties of liberalism (around the turn of the last century) saw man as evolving toward an eventual world government that would regulate conduct and prevent war.
League of Nations and UN Charters have strains of this type of liberal idealism: making peaceful settlement of disputes a new norm.
The idea of world government has been knocked about since.  Cold War meant that the world could not be unified unless one of the other superpower knocked the other out.  Realists (in charge of most countries’ foreign ministries and defense establishments) consider this idea laughable and dangerous.
In the second half of the twentieth century, though, some new liberal ideas came to the fore.  These included especially the ideas of INTERDEPENDENCE and the rise of NON-STATE ACTORS.
Interdependence: Economic linkages, communication technologies finally making possible one world with one common humanity.  All linked together, can’t go to war without causing hardship to all.  This has been developed further in the 1990s to a school of thought which sees globalization as rendering war among major powers as impossible, would impoverish everyone, no one has an incentive to rock the globalization boat.
Rise of non-state actors: new non-state actors becoming more influential than the old states of realist international relations discourse: multinational companies many of which have greater annual turnover than developing countries’ GDPs, new cross-national issue groups: the Greens, Greenpeace, Amnesty International.  These corporations and organizations are breaking down the state, establishing common interests across borders.  Generally, foster peace.
Also, recently re-in vogue in the liberal camp is the DEMOCRATIC PEACE THESIS, the idea that democracies do not fight one another.  Goes back to Immanuel Kant’s Perpetual Peace (1795), but backed up by some data that democracies may be no less belligerent than authoritarian regimes but they do not seem to fight each other.  Prescriptive element: make all countries democracies, promote world peace. Source of war here: bellicose authoritarian regimes.
Liberal approaches have fostered much of the growth of international organizations (neoliberalism with emphasis on institutions). International organizations are seen as ways of mediating conflict among states, establishing bases of cooperation, establishing rational-legalistic codes of conduct under which all will be better off.
As in the domestic state where the government provides some order to relations among citizens, so international organizations (while not a world government) can provide some stability, security, and predictability to inter-state interactions.  Can prevent states from being trapped in the security dilemma (need force to protect self, arms build up scares others into thinking you are going to attack, they build up their forces, they scare you, endless cycle of build-up ultimately leading to violence.  By making self more secure through arms, make self less secure by compelling arms acquisition on neighbor/rival), can foster and build on areas where cooperation helpful to solve mutual interests, cooperation reinforcing.  States can learn through international organizations/cooperation and change their preferences and behaviors.
Some liberal internationalists see the evolution of international organizations, the development of international law, the growth of cross-national civil society groups as evidence that the state is being transgressed, or at least having its capacity for war-generating action reduced.
Prisoner’s dilemma (Nye)—can learn to cooperate (Axelrod). (Alexander Wendt, 2002)
Basing on the two inherent characteristics enumerated by Wendt concerning Realism and Liberalism, we can now make an easier comparison and be able to single out the contrasting elements that these theories has in its arsenal. Comparing these two is a very taxing task, because both of them have its own plus and minus characteristics.

Life for example, Realism maybe somewhat darker in its perspective about the political affairs of the world compares to liberalism. Because as what Thomas Hobbes argues in his famous book entitled The Leviathan, “if any two men desire the same thing, which nevertheless they cannot both enjoy, they become enemies and endeavor to destroy or subdue one another”. Taking the same point of view, one of the leading realist scholars, Hans Morgenthau, wrote that a “ubiquity of evil in human actions” inevitably turns Churches into political organizations, Revolutions into dictatorships and of love of country into imperialism. (John T. Rourke, 1997)

If we try to query how Realism and Liberalism contrasted each other, concerning on how to make this world a better place to live with, perhaps the best possible answer here is, on the kind of idea and beliefs that these two are trying to push into every nations heart and mind. If try to base on Wendt’s enumeration about the different characteristics of realism and liberalism. We can see that realism is more on the concept of Balance of Power; the principal actors are the STATES, BAD HUMAN NATURE, POWER, SURVIVAL and WAR as the main instrument in resolving conflict, SURVIVAL and last Realism does not abide with concept of MORALITY.

         In regards to Liberalism, it is more on the idea that humans are PERFECTABLE, HUMAN COOPERATION, INTERDEPENDENCE and the rise of NON-STATE ACTORS. The Establishment of the U.N., and the DEMOCRATIC PEACE THESIS.

         So these are some the contrasts or differences that realism and liberalism have. But, in spite of this, let us not forget that contrasts and differences of ideas are one of the cornerstones of democracy. It is in this area where the foundation of a democratic way of life is built.


Rourke, J.T. (1997)The Nature of Politcis: Realism and Idealism(liberalism) International Politcs on the World Stage. 6th Edition.United States of America, The Mcgraw-Hill Companies Inc. pp. 16
Ken B. (2006)An Overview on the Field of International Relations[ internet], An Overview on the Field of International Relations. Available from:[ Accessed May 17, 2007].
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